John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | December

Occupy Christmas, or, What’s in a Word? – A Commentary on John’s Prologue

A CHRISTMAS COMMENTARY ON JOHN’S PROLOGUE

[A pdf version to read and/or print may be found here.]

In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God,
And God was the word.
The word was in the beginning with God.
And the word became flesh
And lived among us.
And we gazed on his glory,
The glory of the only son born of the father,
Who is filled with grace and truth.

John 1:1-2,14 – Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament

 

When music teacher Sandy Richards at Oak Knoll Elementary School in Traverse City, Michigan, recently attempted to change some lyrics to one traditional carol in preparation for her first and second grade student’s holiday concert she ran into a barrage of parent criticism.

She’d changed the word ‘gay’ to ‘bright,’ as in “don we now our bright apparel,” because the kids wouldn’t stop giggling every time they got to that line in the familiar song. “By taking the word ‘gay’ out of ‘Deck the Halls,’ you are making it a big deal,” said one parent, while stating the obvious: “One word can have different meanings.”

In light of the local uproar over the word change, the original lyrics were restored.  And presumably the grade-schoolers in one Michigan town did not apply the wrong definition to this word, don their gay apparel, and show up to the concert in drag.

Fact is, not only are some homonyms spelled and pronounced the same, while having completely different meanings, some words themselves seem to change with the passage time to convey something different than they did before, in light of our diverse experiences.  From time to time, one could then ask, what’s in a word?  And we could find the same word could mean something different than it ever did before.

In a prior commentary for the Advent season the word Gospel was considered.  Nowadays we most often associate the word with the certain writings of an emerging first century Jewish-Christian movement that documented their particular reflective experience of the life and teachings of an itinerant Galilean rabbi, named Jesus; to whom they subsequently attributed the title Christ; and with those “gospel” texts, over time, became part of the sacred canonical scriptures of our Christian faith.

Of course, we’ve proceeded over the last two millennia to attempt to progressively decipher and apply our own understanding of those historic documents; progressive, that is, in light of our own historical and cultural experiences.  But one way or another, we’ve taken gospel to mean good news, of one sort or another

Still, as that previous commentary explored the word itself, gospel even conveyed at least two different original meanings, depending on the particular context in which it was applied.  In the first instance, gospel as good news could convey an announcement of victory; as in “we won” (and someone else lost). Or on the other hand, gospel could represent a proclamation of amnesty or a blanket pardon and forgiveness for past offenses; along with release and liberation, and the slate wiped clean for everyone.

Time and again in the historical and prophetic books of the Jewish scriptures we can see how these two different definitions are used.  First, how the embattled Israelites competed with other peoples and nations to announce who was the victor, and who was the vanquished.  But then there was also the theme of exile and exodus, liberation, release and return; where there was that repeated prophetic vision where all nations would one day “stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of that dawning.” (Isaiah 60:3)

The imminence of such a “dawning” only intensifies when we turn to the good news texts that begin the different gospels in that compendium we call the New Testament.  Each, in their own way, would define just what kind of good news they’re talking about.  But not only that, even today it would seem the same word for what might be regarded as good news may be defined those two different ways.

For example, this commentary has been considered only a few days after the President Obama announced what was generally regarded to be good news, with the declaration that the American war in Iraq was officially over.  He spoke of having kept his covenant with the American electorate to end that war; or, at least the direct American involvement of what we ourselves started nearly a decade ago.  He spoke of liberation, in terms of liberating the Iraqi people from oppression and tyranny.  And he spoke of the joyous return of thousands upon thousands American military personnel once exiled from their friends, families and homeland.

But in this good news proclamation there was one meaning that might have otherwise been associated with the word gospel that the President did not use.  As Los Angeles Times columnist, Doyle McManus pointed out in his December 18, 2011 editorial,

“Two years ago, the Army general who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin E. Dempsey, commissioned a panel of historians to study how wars come to an end. Dempsey could see that the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts to which he and his colleagues had devoted almost a decade, weren’t heading for the clear conclusions that Americans yearn for. “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned victory?” the general, a former English professor at West Point, wondered at the time.  The answer, the scholars told him, was that most wars don’t end with clear-cut winners and losers, especially long counterinsurgency wars of the sort we’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that kind of conflict, it’s hard to know when it’s safe to claim progress, let alone victory.”

While victory is a word that may be in search of a new definition, there are other words that seem to have popped up in its place; even if they are words that have yet to appear in any standard dictionary in some cases.

Take the word exceptionalism, for example; as in American exceptionalism.  It seems we most often hear this made-up word touted by political candidates who speak of restoring America’s greatness, power and supreme prowess among the nation’s of the earth.

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Annunciation as Introduction to a Prequel Called Christmas!

Dateline: December 14, 2011

If we understand Luke’s familiar Christmas story as a lovely afterthought to that entire gospel, then the introductory chapter that relates the twin annunciations of the births of John and Jesus with Zechariah’s and Mary’s two “Magnificats” not only precede, but nearly pre-empt the angel choir’s announcement in the Bethlehem night sky.  Annunciation and nativity become a two-part prequel and reflective refrain to the gospel’s wider message. 

[Note: this Commentary presumes fresh familiarity with Luke’s complete introductory chapter, leading up to those lines so many cherish hearing each year, “And a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … “ A copy of the Commentary to print and read can be found in the Archives here.]

 

A COMMENTARY ON LUKE  I

For anyone who has ventured even a single step beyond a literal appreciation of this gospel of unknown authorship we call Luke, a rich trove of stories, attributed sayings, and faith acclamations that sometimes mix and match a historical Jesus with a “Christ” of faith can be encountered.  After that first step, there’s no turning back. One understands Luke’s story should not be taken as historical biography, but a construction, or re-construction of a story that had undergone revision and adaptation for decades before being written down in any semblance of the form we have today.

As such the introductory material of Luke’s gospel that includes the two annunciation stories and the familiar Christmas story represent just such lovely and imaginative afterthoughts.  To state the obvious, two of the four canonical gospels don’t include any such story of any kind about how Jesus came into this world. For those early Jewish Christian faith communities, a nativity story was neither foundational nor fundamentally essential in order for them to tell their story.

The brevity of Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus as a full grown adult at the Jordan with the Baptist; where he continues the same message by essentially incarnating, or embodying it, in word and deed. And by the time we get to John’s gospel, constructed at the end of the end of the 1st century CE, the metaphorical meanings to be inferred from Jesus’ nativity have been extrapolated into that heady co-eternal logos, the Word, that – in a single line – “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Matthew undertakes the lengthy and painstaking attempt to trace Jesus’ Davidic lineage. As a result, “As it was foretold” and “as it was written,” will be Matthew’s echoing refrain throughout that gospel.  But Matthew’s separate annunciation story to Joseph, and a one-liner of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem that comprises all of one half of one sentence, suffices to set up his exclusive story of Herod’s cunning treachery and the magi’s epiphany.

Luke alone gives us the parallel annunciation stories of the births of John and Jesus to Zechariah and Mary, sans Joseph.  Like widening a panoramic lens in order to take in a wider view, the entire nativity story can subsequently be viewed not only as a wonderful, but imaginary tale; but also as a fuller introduction to the entire gospel message, written as a lovely afterthought.  In a word, the twin stories of the births of John and Jesus are a theological postscript that reiterates the themes and message portrayed in the chapters and verses that follow.  Just take a look.

Essentially, the same message by the same means (a vision) comes first to Zechariah, then to Mary.  Zechariah is considered a good guy, and good guys are supposed to have good things happen to them.  So it is that he represents anyone to whom a great blessing – however delinquent — should be bestowed.  And there’s no greater blessing in the ancient world than a son.

But it’s far more than that. Look at the context.  Zechariah is a priest (in an all-male priesthood in a patriarchal society) who takes his turn with what was a conventional privilege and enters the “restricted area” of the inner sanctum of the temple. The temple, of course, represents the religious establishment, with all its power and authority to act as intermediaries between God and God’s people.  And Zechariah is going about the daily perfunctory ritual of burning incense on behalf of the institution.

There’s little expectation that anything wonderful or out of the ordinary could possibly occur.  Standing outside, the only thing his co-workers wonder is what could possibly be taking the old man so long? (Lk 1:21ff) It is only after he emerges and they realize someone or something must have slipped in where no unauthorized personnel were allowed.  He has been struck speechless, and they readily surmise he has had an extraordinary, revelatory experience.

The underlying message is none too subtle. God’s messenger can even sneak into the holy temple to speak sometimes!  Not only that, Zechariah will have nothing more to say that hasn’t already been regurgitated a gazillion times before; to the point God’s redemptive message has been reduced to rote memorization. So his capacity to speak is unnecessary until something new is to be said and heard once again.

God’s messenger can even sneak into the holy temple to speak sometimes!  Not only that, Zechariah will have nothing more to say that hasn’t already been regurgitated a gazillion times before … until something new is to be said and heard once again.

 

Between his going in, and his coming out, Zechariah’s typical human reaction that will be repeated time and again by plenty of others in the gospel story to follow: fear, then faith (trust, surrender or abandonment of ego), mixed with surprise, doubt, questioning, disbelief, astonishment, joy.

Now, about the second “annunciation” story for a moment.

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Good News, Bad News – An Amnesty Gospel for the Advent Season


Commentary on an Amnesty Gospel

[Based on Mark 1:1-14. Dateline: December, 2011]

There’s two sides to every story, and there’s often some good news and bad news. Is the Gospel all good news? That depends. This Advent commentary considers the implications of rethinking and retelling the Christmas story.

 

An Advent Prelude

The Advent season — preparing for the coming of Christ into our world in a most extraordinary way — is typically viewed as a well-trod perennial trek to the manger.  Along the way many quaint and charming traditions have been tacked on.  We enjoy them all.  And for many friends and family, neighbors and work colleagues, it suffices to bargain shop with religious zeal, and refer to the season generically as the “holidays.”

And yet, amidst the festive celebrations each year, you also typically hear someone’s call to de-clutter a bit and contemplate the “true reason for the season,” whatever that may be.  Again and again, Advent gets described as a time of watching and waiting, of preparation and anticipation, for Christ to come into our world. Like an old chestnut roasting on an open fire, the question gets asked if we’ve properly prepared a place where we might receive the luminous, human or human-like presence of all we deem divine?

But when pressed about what it means to profess baby Jesus as the “Christ” in Christmas, some may simply resort to unquestioned assumptions or pat doctrine about the “incarnate Word;” all the while stringing more twinkling lights on the tree.  Others may simply relinquish all such musings to the mysteries of an ultimately enigmatic god, miraculously impregnating us with a redemptive gift.

Consider a different Advent journey and question, where the incarnate manifestation and message isn’t a worn and weary redux. Instead of contemplating once again the meaning of Christ coming into our world, how

about considering the implications and ramifications of accepting the longstanding invitation to be the ones to instead spend this

Christmas where that place has long been prepared for us?

To others, it may seem like the same old story about angels and shepherds, stargazers and treacherous earthly princes; and radiant holiness lain in a bed of hay, with the smell of cow dung in the air on a cold, starlit winter night.

But there’s always two sides to every story.  And after so many years retelling it one way, we might accept the invitation to embark on another path that may not simply lead us back, once again, to an outcast’s manger; but instead to a hospitable place where there’s room for all.

This commentary considers the implications of just such a version to the gospel story.

There’s always two sides to every story.  And after so many years retelling it one way, we might accept the invitation to embark on another path that may not simply lead us back, once again, to an outcast’s manger; but instead to a hospitable place where there’s room for all.

 

Good News, Bad News

My daughter called the other day and, after the initial greetings, the next words out of her mouth was a familiar script we’ve all heard and used ourselves: “Well, I’ve got some good news, and some bad news.”

The question that usually follows (“Which do you want to hear first?”) is pretty much irrelevant, since the story won’t be complete without both halves.  Since there’s always two sides to every story, everyone knows when one comes along there’s often both some good news and some bad news.

In this case, the bad news wasn’t all that bad.  The dog had spent the first part of the holiday getting a minor injury stitched up at the emergency pet clinic.  The good news was he was doing just fine, and they’d still be arriving for family supper with only a slight delay.

Fact is, we all seem to experience good news / bad news stories, an almost daily basis.

For former Republican hopeful Herman Cain, he most recently declared what he called the “bad news” was he was suspending his campaign; but what he assured supporters was the “good news” was his voice and message would not be silenced.

Not long ago, the good news was he was convinced there were thousands of women who had never accused him of harassment.  The bad news? As it turned out, there were sufficient numbers to the contrary to derail his hopes of elected office.

Meanwhile, the latest economic good news showed a statistical decline in unemployment. The bad news is it didn’t include all those who’d given up hope of finding a job for the time being; and that the hiring increase was nowhere near required levels to match the needed pace of an economic recovery.

The recent bad news for Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop star Michael Jackson, was the judge threw the maximum jail sentence possible at him.  The good news?  With California’s over-crowded prisons it is likely he will see early release.

The good news for the remaining 13,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is that they’ll all be home for the holidays.  The bad news is that — while that nearly 9-year American war has taken nearly 4,500 American lives and wounded over 32,000, killed over 100,000 civilians and cost nearly a trillion dollars — the recent resurgence in sectarian violence has led some authorities and numerous Iraqi citizens to seriously question the fragile safety, security and stability of present day Iraq.

That’s the way it is. Two sides to every story, and there’s usually something good and something not so good in it.  And it’s the same in most people’s personal lives, as it is with the front-page news stories.

True, some folks seem to get more than their share of bad news; whatever a fair share might be, and for whatever reason, explicable or not.  Other’s stories seem to be more trouble free.  But for most of us, it’s a mixed bag.  Unlike fairy tales, the good news / bad news stories in our lives rarely, if ever, simply end, “and they only lived happily ever after.”

Are there ever any stories that are not only “real,” but only good news, as well?

 

An Amnesty Gospel for Christmas

Sometimes the Christmas story is portrayed as getting as close as one can to that kind of fairy tale.

The angel choir dispels the fright of the simple shepherds with “glad tidings” of great, pure, unadulterated joy. Despite the inhospitality of this world, the irrepressible divine makes its presence known in a most unexpected way.  All of nature, peoples and nations seem drawn to a stable, with unrestrained awe and adoration.  Stars in the heavens bend to point the way.  Like a redemptive, restorative act of creation all over again, it would appear to all be good news.

The fact is, we know these two well-known versions of the Jesus’ nativity provided in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are fanciful, imaginary tales that emerged out of those two early church traditions. But they did so in order to tell a very real human story, that contained two sides to it; and had within it – as things clearly turn out — both good news and bad news.  It’s what makes their stories real, if not historically accurate on the one hand; or a make-believe fairy tale on the other.

This point is made even more clearly in the earliest canonical gospel, Mark, where brevity and imminence has no time for reimagining creation in a stable; let alone the journey of the magi from who knows where.  There’s another journey already begun, he seems to say, and we’d best be on our way.

Hence, Mark’s story simply begins abruptly, with the announcement,

The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins …

You’ll never see a children’s Christmas pageant, based on the gospel of Mark.   The urgency and seriousness of his proclamation is a kick start message, meant to pick up where the ancient prophetic tradition left off centuries before; first with the Baptist, and once he’s dispatched, with Jesus the itinerant peasant rabbi who’ll appear on the scene for the first time as a fully grown male adult. Despite the absence of a Christmas play, the presentation is no less dramatic.

Jesus will pick up the mantle and message from the Baptist; as the gospel’s good news storyline continues.

After John was locked up, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming God’s good news.  His message went: “The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news!”

These words are typically heard as a warning and call to repentance, because judgment is about to be handed down from on high.  Indeed, the Baptist’s token cleansing ritual of repentance, standing knee deep in the chilly Jordan waters, was all about coming clean, or else.  One could say that’s the bad news.

But the good news that is coming on the heels of the bad news is about the one who will be the very embodiment of the “Word:” And in a word, that one word would be forgiveness, or pardon, or amnesty.

The biblical commentator Harry Cook makes this important point about what makes a story we call “gospel” a good news story:

The term τοϋ εύαγγελίου (Gr.) is commonly translated as “the gospel of,” but to many in antiquity the term referred to a general amnesty that was about to be announced by a ruler or high public official. And to others amnesty meant a declaration that “our team won!

To some, the gospel of good news means some win, while the same news isn’t so good for those who don’t.  Indeed, the name or title given Jesus as Χριστος, the Christ, God’s anointed, conveyed to some that the long-awaited messianic expectation that God’s chosen would one day appear; and furthermore, he would victoriously subordinate all the earthy powers and principalities of a world that had oppressed God’s people, and set things right again. God’s team would one day prevail, and that day had finally come.  That’s one way the gospel tale gets told, and re-told.

But the ramifications and implications of a “gospel” story as the proclamation of a general amnesty reflects a different kind of good news / bad news scenario; where “gospel,” as good news, was understood in the context of the convicted offender being pardoned and set free, with past offenses forgotten, and the slate wiped clean.

Thinking of the gospel of Jesus the Christ as a proclamation of blanket amnesty provides a different way of hearing the same message.  And it’s the kind of Christmas celebration that’d make any Scrooge cry, “Humbug!”

Amnesty is a term bandied about a lot these days; as it has been co-opted in the hot button debate over solving the problem of immigration reform.  For some, it has become a loaded term, almost like a dirty word that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.  It’s more than just a hot potato topic for aspiring politicians these days, debating how best to secure our borders from illegal immigration by means of a wall, high-tech surveillance or electrocution.  As successive weekly poll numbers clearly indicate, however, to even hear that one word uttered on the lips of certain candidates is tantamount to political suicide.

Perhaps that’s why it would be highly unlikely to see a John the Baptist type character ever elected to high public office. In fact, “Our side won!” turned out to be a better quip for those who instead served up his head on a platter

And it seems clear from the gospel accounts, as well, that the itinerant 1st century rabbi from Nazareth never showed much promise with his brief career, when viewed askance by the ecclesiastical authorities; flaunting the Laws the way Jesus did, clearly advocating open borders, and so freely forgiving wrongdoers.

This Amnesty “Gospel” is a story with a message intended to declare there’s good news for everyone; for perceived winners and losers, for the powerful and powerless, for the acceptable and the unacceptable.  Everyone wins.  It’s as if creation itself is being made new all over again.  And it’s all good.

And the only bad news in this good news story is reserved for those who still believe they have no need of amnesty, and want nothing to do with it.  And who would instead prefer to play the Grinch in all this, ruin what’s truly real about this kind of a Christmas for everyone else, and nail amnesty to a tree.

 

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more of John Bennison’s Commentaries on progressive Christian spirituality go to Words & Ways.

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